When most people think of Ray Harryhausen's films, they most often think of his various fantasy movies, classics such as the Sinbad movies, Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981). If they think of one of his other movies, it is generally going to be one of his early sci-fi films, such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). Unless he or she is a classic movie buff or a Ray Harryhausen fan it is not often that a person will mention The Valley of Gwangi (1969). This is a shame, as The Valley of Gwangi is one of Ray Harryhausen's more enjoyable films.
The Valley of Gwangi was a bit of an anachronism when it was released. It was an old time monster movie with a unique twist. Like earlier films such as The Lost World (1925) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms it involved a dinosaur. Like King Kong (1933) it involved the capture of a rare and dangerous animal who then gets loose to terrorise civilisation. Unlike many earlier monster movies it was set in the American West at the turn of the 20th Century, pitting cowboys against an Allosaurus (although it resembles a Tyrannosaurus a great deal). While The Valley of Gwangi was in many respects an old time monster movie, it was also a Western, one of the first examples of the Western blended with a fantastic genre.
While Ray Harryhausen conceived most of the films on which he worked, the original idea for The Valley of Gwangi originated with someone else. Ray Harryhausen's mentor was legendary special effects and stop motion pioneer Willis O'Brien, the man responsible for the effects in the classics The Lost World and King Kong. Mr. O'Brien conceived a scenario originally called The Valley of the Mists, in which cowboys capture an Allosaurus in the Grand Canyon. The cowboys place the dinosaur in a Wild West show, where it is billed under the name "Gwangi" Gwangi eventually escapes and terrorises the town, before finally being forced off a cliff by at truck. Most of Willis O'Brien's original scenario would find its way into The Valley of Gwangi, although the time frame was moved from contemporary times to the turn of the 20th Century. Willis O'Brien's scenario referred to the dinosaur as an Allosaurus, although Willis O'Brien's storyboards for the scenario appear to have drawn upon Charles R. Knight's famous painting of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Ray Harryhausen remained faithful to Willis O'Brien's vision of Gwangi in making his own Gwangi more resemble a Tyrannosaurus.
Sadly Willis O'Brien was unable to sell Gwangi (as the project was eventually renamed) to any studios before his death in 1962. Willis O'Brien's scenario would inspire a similar film that involved dinosaurs and cowboys. Mr. O'Brien wrote the screenplay for The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), but for some reason did not provide the stop motion special effects for the film. The Beast of Hollow Mountain was set in Mexico at the Turn of the 20th Century and involved cowboys who investigate the disappearance of cattle and farmers in the region, only to learn an Allosaurus is to blame. The film was made on a very low budget, and in both English and Spanish. Although largely forgotten now, The Beast of Hollow Mountain was the first film with stop motion effects to be shot in colour, as well as the first to be shot in wide-screen format.
After having created stop motion effects for Hammer Films' One Million Years B.C. (1966), Ray Harryhausen reunited with Charles H. Schneer, the producer with whom he had made everything from It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) to First Men in the Moon (1964). All of Messrs. Harryhausen and Schneer's films had been released through Columbia Pictures, but they were not able to interest the studio in The Valley of Gwangi. Charles H. Schneer then turned to Warner Bros., who had distributed One Million Years B.C. in the United States. Fortunately Warner Bros. agreed to the project.
The Valley of the Gwangi would prove to be one of the most complicated films that Ray Harryhausen ever made. In fact, The Valley of Gwangi would set the record for the most stop-motion animation cuts in any Ray Harryhausen film, 335 stop-motion cuts. The most complicated effect in the film (and perhaps in any Ray Harryhausen film) is perhaps where the cowboys lasso Gwangi. The lassoing sequence alone took four months to complete. It took Ray Harryhausen around two years to complete the stop-motion effects for The Valley of Gwangi.
Unfortunately, while Ray Harryhausen was working on the stop-motion effects for The Valley of Gwangi, changes were taking place that would have a overall negative impact on the film's future. Charles H. Schneer had made the deal for The Valley of Gwangi not long after Warner Bros. had merged with Seven Arts Productions. In 1969 Warner Bros.-Seven Arts was sold to Kinney National Company for more than $64 million. This naturally meant a change in management at Warner Bros. Sadly, the new management were not enthusiastic about The Valley of Gwangi. Upon its release on September 3 1969 they gave the film almost no promotion. It often played on double bills with films for which the audience was often hardly the sort to appreciate a cross between an old fashioned monster movie and a Western.
Worse yet, reviews for The Valley of Gwangi often were not kind. Ann Guarino of The New York Daily News wrote, "The Valley of Gwangi is just ho-hum..." In The New York Times, Howard Thompson described The Valley of Gwangi as a "run-of-the-mill monster rally" and wrote, "The first half is strictly standard, filled with human intrigue and mischief. Only when the obviously animated beasts from the past get into the act, about midway through, does the picture perk up, in a craggy wasteland."
Between the lack of promotion from Warner Bros. and the generally mediocre reviews from critics, it should come as no surprise that The Valley of Gwangi was a failure at the box office. As a movie that at its core is about a dinosaur who is captured and then escapes it was in many respects a relic of another era. Monster movies of its sort were out of fashion for much of the Sixties. As a movie that blended Westerns and science fiction it was in some respects a bit ahead of its time. The 1935 Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire and the classic Sixties TV show The Wild Wild West were very nearly the only examples of the "Weird Western" subgenre at the time. In the late Sixties movies were expected to have sex and relevance, neither of which The Valley of Gwangi had.
Fortunately The Valley of Gwangi would be redeemed in the end. The film resurfaced at matinees in the Seventies and also began appearing regularly on television. The film finally found its audience, people who could appreciate a film in which cowboys fight dinosaurs. To wit, Ian Nathan's review of Valley of Gwangi in Empire Magazine from 2006 is glowing compared to those from 1969. While no one today would necessarily place The Valley of Gwangi on the same level as such Ray Harryhausen classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts, it is not the mediocre film critics in 1969 would have one believe it to be.
Indeed, The Valley of Gwangi contains some of Ray Harryhausen's best work. The sequence in which the cowboys attempt to rope the Allosaurus is one of the most memorable sequences he ever created, right up there with the fight with the Children of the Hydra's Teeth in Jason and the Argonauts and the fight between the cyclops and the dragon in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. What is more, it is not the only great sequence in the film. We get to see Gwangi fight lions. We get to see Gwangi fight an elephant. As mentioned earlier, The Valley of Gwangi had more stop-motion cuts than any other Ray Harryhausen movie.
And while The Valley of Gwangi may have been derided upon its release in 1969, seen today it has a charm that many better reviewed movies released that year wholly lack. It is true that the film's story owes a good deal to The Lost World, King Kong, and other monster movies of years gone by. It is true that, other being set in the American West at the turn of the 20th Century, in many respects The Valley of Gwangi is not particularly original. That having been said, it is still a very entertaining film with some interesting characters (indeed, James Franciscus plays a fairly unlikeable character) and plenty of action.
While The Valley of Gwangi is hardly as good as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and Argonauts (let's face it, few films are), it is still a thoroughly entertaining movie with some of Ray Harryhausen's best work. And, honestly, how many people (at least Ray Harryhausen fans) can resist the lure of cowboys fighting dinosaurs? The Valley of Gwangi may be one of Ray Harryhausen's lesser known films, but it deserves to be better known.